Almost 350 years after it was written, the feminist philosophy of François Poullain de la Barre still resonates on subjects like gender, prejudice, intersectionality, and the role of men in women’s fight for equality.
Junk history is embodied perfectly in a recent viral meme that portrays a nineteenth-century Persian princess with facial hair alongside the claim that 13 men killed themselves over their unrequited love for her. While it fails miserably at historical accuracy, the meme succeeds at demonstrating how easily viral clickbait obscures and overshadows rich and meaningful stories from the past.
In 1795, English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, internationally known for her defense of women’s rights, went on a journey to Scandinavia that helped her pull herself from the depths of despair and produce one of her finest works.
Joan of Arc, Countess Emilia Plater, Wonder Woman: Singular women placed on a pedestal, carefully arranged and served on a silver platter of inimitable exceptionalism, meant to be admired for their sacrifice, but not duplicated. These are the flawed foundations of the stories of “heroic” women that have helped insure that the concept of the women warrior remains an anomaly more akin to a fictional superhero than an accepted reality.
While the stories of history’s first female doctors of philosophy are inspiring, they also highlight the galling realities of women’s centuries-long struggle to obtain equal educational opportunities and professional and intellectual respect. Seen as a whole, they have the power to light a fire beneath armchair inspiration and provoke similarly bold and progressive action.
In an age when wealthy Americans visited Europe either to sell off their daughters in marriage to titled men or to buy up European culture and historical heritage, Edith Wharton and Natalie Clifford Barney went there in search of gender and intellectual equality. They found it in France.
A true visionary doesn’t claim to be a visionary. A genuine leader doesn’t require an authoritative title. Margrete Valdemarsdatter of Denmark asserted neither prerogative, and yet her vision for a unified Scandinavia and her ability to realize and effectively lead that union make her one of history’s most important rulers.